After spending a total of 55 weeks – 54 of those consecutively – as the number one amateur golfer in the world, Long Beach-born Patrick Cantlay finally turned pro in June 2012, meaning he left college two years early to take up the sport as a fully-fledged profession.
And less than a year after turning pro he won his first event, the 2013 Colombia Championship in Bogota on the Web.com Tour. He subsequently finished in 11th in the Tour finals, to get his PGA Tour card for the following year.
However, a back injury kept him out of action for almost a year. At the same time, the golfer had to come to terms with the loss of his caddy and best friend Chris Roth, who was killed in a hit and run when the pair were out in California’s Newport Beach.
The mental and physical scars served to drive Cantlay forward, and he made a vow to himself to never look back and not take anything for granted. ‘It was then I realised I had to do the best that I could in every minute of every day, because life is sometimes so fragile.’
Regaining his PGA Tour card, and adapting his entire swing so as to protect himself from further back injury, the American won his first event on the Tour at the Shriners Hospital for Children Open in Las Vegas in 2017, and then a fortnight later clinched the Memorial Tournament in Ohio.
Just this October, the 27-year-old almost won the Shriners for a second time, but after previously taking that title by way of a second extra hole play-off against Alex Cejka and Kim Meen-whee, he did the reverse in 2019 and lost by the same method to fellow American, Kevin Na.
This season he tied ninth at Augusta for the Masters and recorded an impressive third for the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in New York, with world number one Brooks Koepka retaining the trophy.
That back injury that side-lined him for so long may now mean his technique is very different from when he first turned pro, but the form he is showing is as familiar to fans as it is ominous to rivals.
RSNG What made you choose golf as a professional career?
PATRICK CANTLAY, PRO GOLFER ‘One big reason is that golf has always been a really popular pursuit, and on both sides of my family. In fact, my grandpa has a putting green in his back garden! I grew up playing a lot of golf and I have loved the game ever since I first picked up a club.’
‘If I wasn’t a golfer, a lot of people tell me that I love a good argument – and ironically enough, I actually agree with them, haha! But the reason they say that is that they think that I argue enough to be a lawyer, so perhaps I’d be doing that instead.’
‘Golf just ticks so many boxes, and if you’re good at something you should always pursue it as hard as possible. I love the competitiveness, love the clean air and travel is always exciting. Of course I know I am very lucky doing something I love.’
‘Doing the right type of practice and not just practising for the sake of it has really worked out well for me’
RSNG So, your grandpa was a strong influence on you growing up in a golfing capacity?
PC ‘My grandpa said to me a long time ago that it’s not just practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice. So, ever since I heard him say that, I make sure that no matter what I am doing with my game, or whatever I am working on golf-wise, I make sure that it has my 100% concentration and focus.’
‘I think that’s definitely helped me – doing the right type of practice and not just practising for the sake of it has really worked out well for me. My aim is to keep on progressing as much as I can and get the most out of my abilities.’
RSNG You’ve used the same clubs for quite some time. Would you ever think of changing?
PC ‘Well, I have used the same 718 AP2 Titleist irons since I was in high school. The whole point of using those clubs for so long is that I feel really comfortable with them and I know exactly what I can do and can’t do with them. My favourite go to shot is a low draw, and I know how to and when to reach for that shot with those irons.’
‘They are perfect for me and they are the best clubs to suit my game, my swing and my style. I get everything I want and need from them and they’ve been so consistent over that whole time for me.’
‘I’ve used quite a few different versions of these clubs and I just can’t think that any others would be as good for me, as these are.’
RSNG What do you look for in a club?
PC ‘I go for feel and flight over numbers and science, personally. If I can see what the ball is doing, if I can work it how I want to and everything looks and feels right, then I am happy, and those irons have been good for me over that time. So, for that reason, there’s no real reason why I would need to change.’
RSNG You got the chance to play at the Masters in 2012 while you were still a sophomore at UCLA. How did that feel?
PC ‘That was just so much fun playing at Augusta and it’s something that kids who love golf dream of, so when I got the opportunity to go there and play for the first time, it was a whole new experience for me.’
‘Playing the practice rounds was another great experience as well, mainly because it’s almost like a little event in its own right, far different from practising at any other golf event before the tournament begins on the Thursday.’
‘You have fans watching and there’s just something about Augusta National where the majesty and history becomes apparent the more you walk around the course. It’s an incredible course and you learn something new every time you go there.’
‘You want to play shots in different areas so you know exactly what you need to do, should your chosen shot not go where you want it to. So it’s very important to know how the course reacts and what shots you need to play to the lightning-fast greens.’
‘Many people who have been through trauma will tell you that when they emerge out the other side they are a better person for the experience’
RSNG You had a back injury in 2013-14 which meant you only played five events over that time, then one tournament in 2014 and none in 2015 or 2016. What did it feel like to come back?
PC ‘I was swinging a club warming up for a tournament and broke my pars bone. That’s a spinal fracture and it kept me out for that time. The way that affected me was not just physical, but also mental.’
‘Everything I was doing had me thinking that I was never going to be able to do anything right on the golf course again – I was full of doubt. I was missing the putts and approach shots that I was making before the injury and I began to second-guess myself, which was very frustrating under the circumstances.’
‘Over that time, I also lost my best friend Chris Roth who died right in front of me when we were out in California. We had spent so much time together over the years and he was also my caddy, as well. That situation took me to a place in life that I had no idea existed and it really shook me into shape.’
RSNG During the injury, it must have felt like such a long way back?
PC ‘They were some tough times, that’s for sure. When something like that happens you need to have faith that things will turn out okay, but there are so many stories of sportsmen and women cut off in their prime because of these sorts of injuries.’
‘When the order is to rest, your emotion is to do anything but that, and I really had to hold myself back from doing anything that would potentially reignite the injury. I knew I could do even more damage unless I followed orders, but when your job is a sportsman, you are effectively denying your very purpose.’
RSNG Was there any plus-side?
PC ‘Many people who have been through trauma will tell you that when they emerge out the other side they are a better person for the experience. And that is so true.’
‘Would I have rathered the injury hadn’t happened? Of course. But coming through it made me realise how lucky I was to be doing this, and has certainly focused my mind in terms of going after everything now and never coasting through challenges, as I might have done in the past.’
‘I’m not just talking about golf there, but life as a whole. I really want to grasp every challenge and I feel it is my duty to do that now.’
WHAT NEXT? How Patrick Cantlay adapted his swing to protect his injured back.